I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes…writing is hard. Today I struggled. And I did not accomplish much. (The kitchen is clean. There’s that. It counts.)
To help combat the doldrums I keep five writing books within reach of my desk. I thought that if anyone else was struggling — especially in the middle of National Novel Writing Month — these books might help shake some cobwebs.
In no particular order, I give you the books which are sitting within arm’s reach:
I know, I know, I know. Everyone drops this books in an “essential writing book” list. Like many, I try to stick to King’s admonition to not use adverbs and be active, not passive. Which is very good, solid advice. So is the advice on writing every day. So is not using weird dialogue tags. So is “read a lot, write a lot.” So is putting your desk in the corner.
But I love this book and I keep it close because King gives permission. That may not seem like much. But in a world of “You should be doing the dishes” or “You should go get a real job, with Health Insurance!”, having a successful person tell you “You have permission to tell a story” is magical. And sometimes, when I’m in the middle of “shoveling shit from a seated position” — it’s good to know that it’s okay.
2. Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor
My friends are really, really, really tired of hearing me praise this book. But I will continue to praise. Glory, hallelujah.
Blaspheming aside, this book is full of exercises, which is great, BUT the reason this book is never far from my side is because it puts me right back in the learning mindset. Because the exercises are geared toward refining your own work, they teach you something new every time you complete them. Beyond that, Long does a fantastic job (IMHO) of teaching things I’d heard about in workshops. You wanna know how to control the pace of the story? You wanna know how to use language to evoke certain emotional responses? You wanna know how a story/essay is structured? This will teach you. And then it will teach you again. And again as you work through your own creations. Nothing hard or complex or magical. She explains things in straightforward terms with straightforward examples.
3. Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook
This book is crazy wild. Gorgeous, strange illustrations. Loads of graphics. And filled to bursting with permission (noticing a trend?) and advice on storytelling from conception to completion. You can flip it open and land on advice and stories from bestselling/award winning authors. Vandermeer throws in a lot of checklists/questions to push you if you’re stuck. It really is a wonder of a book. (I know, that was terrible. It’s late.)
4. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
Again. On every list of essential books on writing.
But if it works, it works.
If you dropped my copy of this book on the floor, it would automatically fall open to two essays toward the beginning: “Shitty First Drafts” and “One Inch Frames.” Both essays encourage you to push through and worry about what is right in front of you in the moment. This lesson cannot be taught enough. You can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t worry about perfection in the drafting. You will work on the same paragraph for the rest of your life. And guess what? That paragraph will still not be perfect. So write a shitty paragraph (one-inch frame), then write another one, and soon you’ll have a full shitty first draft. Which is amazing.
5. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit
First, a word of warning: there is a lot of Great Gatsby references. If, like me, you are NOT a fan of Gatsby, you need to sit down and be quiet because there’s soooo much good information here.
You know that shitty first draft you wrote because Anne Lamott inspired you and Stephen King gave you permission? This book helps you clean up the scrap heap you’ve created.
She has great advice on gaining perspective if you’re in a crunch. Most drafts need to mellow in a drawer for a while so the author can read it with fresh eyes. Bell presents some methods to use if you don’t have the luxury of time.
There are two key checklists as well: macro and micro editing. My copy, if dropped on the floor, would fall open to one or the other of those checklists.
(Generally found somewhere in my vicinity.)
Chuck Wendig’s Kick Ass Writer: For when you need your ass kicked. Also for when you need to figure out how to kick ass.
Larry Moss’ The Intent to Live. Caveat: not a writing book. This book is designed for actors creating a character. Guess who creates the characters actors need to create? That’d be us writers. Best book I’ve found for understanding super-objective, objective, goals, and motivation.
Brian Kiteley’s The 3AM Epiphany. Last but certainly not least. As a matter of fact, I’ve bought three copies. I seem to keep misplacing them as I work through the exercises. Best book of exercises I’ve come across. Challenging and interesting.
All right, because I’m a nerd like that, I insisted on reading Lovecraft Country before watching the show. I’m only a couple episodes in – so no spoilers! Here are a couple things I learned reading the novel:
Art is not made in a vacuum. Every piece of writing is responding and engaging with work that has come before. That’s just the nature of the beast. I know I have artistic influences and I’m sure you do too.
Lovecraft Country has its influence right there in the title. H.P. Lovecraft. By many, he’s considered the Father of Horror. He created terrors beyond the stars. Cthulhu. His prose is full and complicated. And he was indisputably a racist.
In the interview in the back of my copy of Lovecraft Country, the author, Matt Ruff, says, “I wish he’d been a better person, or blessed with better mentors. But as a storyteller, I can still learn from him.”
And Ruff clearly took the Lovecraftian inspiration – monsters, cults, dangers-beyond-the-stars – and ran with it. I personally can respect stealing both artistic inspiration and technique.
But I also think it is equally, if not more, important is to level a critique of that “mentor’s” work. Ruff, knowing full well how negatively Lovecraft portrayed people of color in his work, challenged those portrayals by placing a Black family front and center in this novel. The cult members and devils are all white people – and the most horrific horrors aren’t supernatural. Often the most painful, frightening moments center on the terrors whites have perpetrated on Blacks. (I cried during Ruff’s scene of the Tulsa massacre.
2. Root Your Characters in History
Much like us writers, characters come from history. Sure, that history might be made up or it might be history which hasn’t happened to us…yet. but the character is a product of the world’s past just as much as their own backstory.
The characters in Lovecraft Country are definitely grounded in American history. The women’s options are limited exactly the way women’s options were limited post WWII. The characters must navigate segregation laws. The enthusiastic-reader characters only reference authors of the time or earlier. No Stephen King.
This novel is swarming with examples, but favorite is early on. (If you’ve watched the show on HBO this scene is in there too.) Atticus, George, and Letitia are visiting a diner which, previously, had been rumored to be safe for Black customers. Then Atticus notices fresh, white paint:
“Looking at the wall again, Atticus repeated a trivia question from that long-ago road trip: ‘Why is the White House white?”
‘War of 1812,’ George said. ‘British soldiers put the executive mansion to torch. Then later when the slaves rebuilt it, they had to paint the walls white to cover up the …’
‘…the burn marks,” Atticus finished for him…”
The character’s knowledge of history lets them know that the “friendly” diner was burned down. And in its place is a whitewashed, unfriendly restaurant.
History isn’t over yet. We’re still a part of it and so are our characters. Go make your mark.
Growing up, my mom was very consistent with my bedtime ritual: bath, book, bed. Bath — warm water, bubbles. By seven or eight months old, this first step was so necessary that my dad, left alone with me for an evening, had to call my mom away from a coffee (a military-wives get-together) because I would not sleep. She came home, gave me a bath, I went to sleep, and she went back to her coffee. Later, books were added. Over the years, these central ‘bath, book, bed’ tenets have remained. It’s been consistent through break ups with bad boyfriends and shitty days at work. Maybe I’ll wear a nightgown, maybe sweatpants, maybe nothing. Always brush my teeth and put on lip balm, falling into dreams with the taste of peppermint and Carmex. Sometimes at bath time I’ll shave my legs, slather them with coconut-scented lotion, then slide that bare skin between soft cotton sheets. I’ll leave a nightlight on in the bathroom. Somewhere there will be a box fan, its white noise cutting out the clutter of street sounds, neighboring dogs, and windchimes that don’t belong to me. I pick up a book and read until I drift away, sometimes remembering to turn off the lights. I am allowed to sleep through thunderstorms. I am allowed to sleep through sirens. I am allowed to sleep uninterrupted by a pounding on the door.
I imagine Breonna Taylor’s ritual, her pattern before bedtime. Maybe warm tea. Maybe a favorite nightgown. Maybe she put on thick, cozy socks because she didn’t like the feel of cold air on her bare feet. Maybe we had the exact same ritual: bath, book, bed. Whatever it was, she made it through that ritual, tucked herself into bed beside her boyfriend’s warm body. Maybe they whispered “Good-night” and started drifting off to wherever we go when we sleep. After completing whatever her sleep ritual was, she was not allowed to sleep. The breaking of a doorframe. Unfamiliar baritone voices – voices foreign to her space. Unknown. Just enough time to register the warm body which had been resting beside her just a moment before is now moving across the now-rumpled bed. Just enough time to kick the sheets tangling around her legs. Her thick, cozy socks staticky from the friction with the sheets. She makes it to the hallway, streetlamp light leaking in from somewhere, the nightlight glowing blue in the bathroom, and sharp, laser-like flashlight beams which make no sense. Then an explosion. Yelling. More explosions rattle her teeth – she still tastes peppermint. Somewhere glass shatters. Just an hour earlier maybe she took a bath. Maybe she read a book. And the difference between her and me on the night of Friday, March 13, 2020: I will always be allowed to sleep and she will not.
Covid-19 has taken a lot of things from us. Like the ability to breathe without a piece of cloth in front of our faces. And the chance to meet up with a group of friends without strategic planning. And the opportunity to head to school and be bored in a classroom rather than be bored in front of the computer at home. And even hugs. I miss hugs.
Early on, Covid-19 took some big things from me, artistically speaking. In March, when the “hit” came, I was writing a play set to go up this Christmas. Between the chaos of suddenly having everyone in my household suddenly always being, well, in my household and the stress of the disease lurking around, my play suddenly didn’t feel relevant. So, I spoke to my theatre ensemble and begged off. And the production was cancelled. At the same time, another production was tabled and two more were postponed until later this year.
And tomorrow, one of the postponed plays, White by James Ijames, will open virtually at Springs Ensemble Theatre.
After months of strategizing, months of emotional turmoil, months of tears and sweat and stress, a recorded version will be released.
White is about Gus, an artist who wants his work to be included in an upcoming exhibition put together by Jane, his museum curator friend. However, Jane informs him he’s “the exact opposite of what I’m looking for…No white dudes.” Gus refuses to take no for an answer and hires a Black actress, Vanessa, to present his work as the work of a Black artist they name and create together, “Balkonaé.” Everything seems to be working, until the character of Balkonaé takes over and takes matters into her own hands…. It’s hilarious, and relevant, and magical.
So, what did I learn about making art from White?
1.Art finds a way. The production team and cast that put together White worked for months to figure out how to deliver this story to the public. There were discussions with the playwright, the publishing company, SET, and all the artists to figure out a way to tell this story safely. More than once the question of cancelling came up. But this story was too important and too relevant to let slip away.
So, resources were scrambled. Rehearsal and production schedules were extended – the process started in March and it opens tomorrow. You can do the math.
But I think the real reason this play has come together is because the artists involved understand that art is important. They showed me that, if you believe enough and are determined enough, you can make it happen. Art finds a way.
2. Art is work and it won’t be rushed. A completed piece, whether a book, or a play, or a painting, just doesn’t magically happen. Thousands of hours of effort go into everything you’ve ever read, watched, or observed. Even the shittiest cartoon you watched as a toddler is the result of massive amounts of work.
I’ve always known this. And, as I’ve worked on my own projects during these quarantimes, I’ve often thought I should be finished sooner, producing faster. In essence, I’ve thought that I should be done with the work. But to do a piece well, whether it’s a story or a play or a painting, you have to spend time with it. It’s not an assembly line.
White is a play and Springs Ensemble Theatre is very good at producing plays (if I do say so myself). But every play presents its own challenges, right? The regular formula – rehearse, tech, open – did not apply here. Everything about the pattern was thrown off. So artists had to spend time, effort, and work with that project, get to know its challenges and overcome them. To do it right, it couldn’t be rushed.
3. Art should push the artist. Anything you create should be a learning experience. I’m not going to single any one person on this creative team out, because every last one of them pushed hard in this play. Whether it was presenting a point of view different from their own, whether it was an emotional exploration of their own feelings about race, art, and representation, whether it was making sure the environment itself was safe for people to create, the cast and crew of this production pushed themselves. As a result, I think anything any of them create in the future will be richer because they’ve pushed themselves – which is uncomfortable, hard, and ultimately strengthening.
And, the good news is, no matter where you are in the world, you can by a ticket and access this play anytime between September 24 at 7:30pm MT to October 11 at 11:55pm. https://springsensembletheatre.org/show/ After that, like sandcastles and dandelion wishes, it’s gone.
I put on socks and shoes for the first time in days. Still comfortable, nothing too fancy. If I wanted to, I could go for a walk, and I could walk for a mile or two without getting blisters. I brush my hair. Pull it into a ponytail. My phone, wallet, and mask are on the table where I left them – a week ago? Two? But I lose a few minutes searching for my keys. My keys are almost always lost.
Then I’m out the front door, down my front steps, past the overgrown juniper shrubs and grasshopper-devoured rose bushes, and onto the driveway. I climb into my car, drop the phone, wallet, and mask onto the passenger seat. It’s hot inside, a dry heat that smells like chemical lemons, a consequence of keeping disinfecting wipes tucked between the seats.
My first memory is me, sitting in a car seat. The car is gray. I look out the window and can see the exterior. There’s a house. The sky is blue over the house. I live in the house. The car is parked in the driveway. That’s all I know. I don’t remember if we were coming or going. And that’s it. My first memory: a car either arriving or departing.
Today I’m in the driver’s seat. I turn the key in the ignition. The car is definitively rolling backward, away from the house where I live. No particular direction or end point in mind. Just the roll of tires, the air conditioner finally chasing the chemical-smelling heat away, and a song I like on the radio. One street over, a hawk is circling, waiting for me to fly with him. Once I clear the neighborhood, I open the window and I open the throttle and I fly.
The sky is as blue as my first memory. The clouds are brushed wisps. I steer south, away from town, through the twisting back roads leading into tumbleweed. The wind pulls at my ponytail. I stick my hand out, catching and waving the air. This doesn’t feel like the stagnant air I’ve been inhaling through masks and indoor ventilation. It’s hot. Fast. Swirling. Something wild horses breathe. Something hawks soar through. Something tangible filling the dome of the sky.